Tristram Hunt returns to whitehall for a new BBC sitcom

May 27, 2005

'Comparing this with the hideously worthy West Wing is to breathe in the fresh air of British democracy' The thick of it. BBC 4, Thursdays, 10.30pm-11pm (until June 2)

The BBC's new political satire The Thick of It will no doubt delight Britain's serried ranks of constitutional seers. This is the programme for those who regard new Labour as an administrative car crash. Where Yes, Minister placed the arched struggle between Secretary of State and Permanent Undersecretary at the heart of the drama, The Thick of It focuses on the unhealthy relationship between a minister and his press advisers.

This is its strength as satire and weakness as comedy.

There is no doubting the programme's unmistakable realism. What producer Armando Iannucci has captured is, above all, the isolation of ministers within vast departmental bureaucracies. Cocooned in their private offices, their interaction with the Civil Service can be remarkably limited while they increasingly rely on their special advisers - a role masterfully depicted here in a character based on Peter Mandelson's former aide, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser. Equally, the ghastly faux-modernist art that lines ministerial offices; the endless battle over access to meetings; the consuming relationship between a minister and his driver; and the tendency of civil servants to clock off early are all dealt with deftly.

So, too, is the process of policy announcements with ideas dropped and revived, rebranded and over-announced. With his anti-fraud initiative blocked by No 10 Downing Street, Hugh Abbot, the hapless Social Affairs Minister, has to cook up another in the back of the car. His special adviser reels off possibilities: "ASBOs for pets"; "national spare room database"; "arts for hearts and minds" (Iannucci scholars will recognise an echo of I'm Alan Partridge , where the equally hapless radio presenter tries to interest a TV producer in a list of programmes culminating in "monkey tennis"). But at a time when Tony Blair has suddenly made "respect" the tenet of his third term - despite its absence from the Labour Party manifesto - the sequence has an awful ring of truth.

More biting is the depiction of news management. Here the fingerprints of Martin Sixsmith, the embittered former government press officer and script consultant, can be detected. At the heart of the drama strides a mendacious but overplayed Alastair Campbell figure, screaming at journalists and bullying ministers. The programme suggests there is no conception of truth within modern politics: simply the creation of an acceptable lie through intimidation and manipulation in which pliant journalists and thuggish political aides are equally complicit.

In the end, with all the shouting down telephones and otiose swearing, it becomes a bit grating. The brilliance of Yes, Minister was the slowly revealed administrative duel between ingenue politician and scheming civil servant. The Thick of It is frequently reduced to "Derek and Clive-style" profanity to carry the script. But in an age when a senior civil servant can characterise the situation facing his department as "We're all fucked.

I'm fucked. You're fucked. We're all completely fucked", perhaps I'm being too squeamish. What the series does manage to confirm is our continuing, healthy irreverence towards political institutions. Comparing this anarchic, engaging, angry series with the tepid, saccharine and hideously worthy West Wing is to breathe in the fresh air of British democracy. And that, at least, should keep the constitutional pundits happy.

Tristram Hunt was special adviser to the Science Minister, 1997-2001. He is now reformed and teaches history at Queen Mary, University of London.

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